Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ross Johnson: Make it Stop!

Amplify’d from

JT Lindroos

Here's a review I wrote for All Music Guide a few years back.  Since then it has been overtaken by Richie Unterberger's review in their database, and his take is diametrically opposed to mine.  But given that I like the record, and I like the review, it's time to dig it up and make it available for your reading pleasure here:

Ross Johnson: Make It Stop
Goner Records, 2007
Ross Johnson is a legend on the Memphis music scene, but he's not really known for his music. He served as a sideman to acknowledged legends, like Alex Chilton and Tav Falco, and was often seen on the microphone between songs and after gigs delivering soulful sermons (or drunken rants, depending on your own state of inebriation) to the patrons and fellow bandmembers. Embarrassed (at length) by his own behavior "in a life mainly characterized by missteps and regret," his accomplishments as a band leader are now available for all to see and hear.

Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson is comprehensive and elaborate. Alongside the 24 selections is enclosed a 16-page chronicle on Johnson's life and lack of success penned by himself and such assorted luminaries as Robert Gordon. Despite his own misgivings as an artist ("The main feeling I have when I listen back to these pieces is discomfort"), the selections which comprise most of his output to date result in something close to brilliant . It's not musically exceptional -- the songs are hardly original, and Johnson's vocals don't really qualify as singing -- and yet, perplexingly, the sum of the record is so much more than its parts would suggest. Songs flow from one to another in a spectacular, drunken cohesiveness occasionally interspersed with short, spoken word rants. "Baron of Love Pt. II" -- a spontaneous tirade about Elvis that was recorded in a pot-induced haze during Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert sessions -- opens the bar with yelping and hollerin' delivered over a chugging rockabilly rave-up.

Follow-up songs, with titles like "Wet Bar," "My Slobbering Decline," "Nudist Camp," and "Hash House Pallor" indicate the obvious, but there's more here than garage band fun and bottles of beer. "Wet Bar" is a humorous and ominous tale of a relationship gone sour (mash), where the narrator raves to his significant other how he never hit her nor ever held out a drink on her. "Rockabilly Monkey-Faced Girl" outpaces Hasil Adkins in crazed rock & roll and features R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on guitar. "Theme from 'A Summer Place'" is a gorgeous instrumental you could play for your mother -- until Johnson pipes in with a list of his inadequacies: "I'm weak and afraid....and it's a lifestyle that's working for me."

There's variety, and there's ability. There is irreverence, there are lies and occasional chaos, and there's the overpowering voice of Ross Johnson careening over it all. Make It Stop! is the perfect party record. There are no weak songs included, though Johnson's savant genius may well be an acquired taste unless you're either drunk or naturally attuned to his brand of extravagance. He is as much a part of the southern tradition as is Charlie Feathers or R.L. Burnside, even if it's the side you only see at family get-togethers and hole-in-the-wall bars. Or prisons and mental institutions. But remember, when your relatives read the title out loud as you play the CD, they probably mean what they say.

JT Lindroos

Ross and Monsieur Jeff Evans Live in 2009:

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